I first came across the Macmath collection of songs and letters back in 2004. I think I’d heard or read mention of it somewhere and was curious as to who he was and what was there. It was a wet rainy afternoon in March and I’d spent the day with primary school kids on an explorative songwriting trip to a local river. I was finished by 2.30 so decided as I was nearby to go and have a look at Macmath. If you’ve never been to Broughton House it can take your breath away the first time. It’s a beautiful example of a Georgian townhouse in the stunning little town of Kirkcudbright on the Solway Firth in S.W. Scotland.
The house was formerly the home of the Scottish Painter E A Hornel – one of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ – a dynamic group of painters who had all studied together at Glasgow School of Art. The house is packed with paintings by him and his contemporaries as well as his vast library. Hornel often bought collections of papers and books at auctions and it was in this way that he acquired papers and books belonging to William Macmath.
Macmath 1844 – 1922 was brought up in Galloway. As a child he learnt many ballads and songs from his Aunt Jane Webster. He obviously developed a fascination for them, for when an advert appeared in Notes and Queries in 1873 stating Wanted, Old Ballads he immediately presented himself to offer his services as a researcher. This led to a long correspondence and working relationship between himself and Francis Child who had placed that advert.
Francis James Child 1825 -1896 was an English professor at Harvard with a special interest in ballads. He eventually published his large collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads in 6 volumes between 1882 and 1898 and Macmath contributed hugely to that work. A large part of the Macmath collection at Broughton House is the correspondence between Child and Macmath.
Over the years I made several vista to the collection and sketched out some possible ideas for ways to use the songs. Finally, in 2012 the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival heard about my plans and offered to do the huge leg work of funding applications. They’ve commissioned the performances for 2015 and found funding from Creative Scotland, The Barfil Trust and The National Trust for Scotland.
My immediate reaction on seeing the song books all those years ago was ‘wouldn’t it be great to bring this page-bound collection back to life’. At that point though I had no idea if any of the songs were ‘valuable’ – were there unpublished or unique versions of any songs? Was it worth putting a lot of effort into finding out? I called on Scot’s song experts and singers Geordie MacIntyre and Alison MacMorland to come and have a look. Over the summer of 2013 we spent several days pouring over the books and with growing excitement I listened to what they had to say – there were some unique songs and song fragments along with many unusual and rare versions of songs. And with their huge knowledge of Scot’s song they were able to come up with tunes or likely tunes for many of the songs. (There are some tunes written down but most songs just have words.)
This blog is the story of bringing these songs back to life. Please join me over the next 6 months as we untangle the songs, write new tunes, ‘mend’ missing verses, make a recording and put together a performance of this long forgotten collection.
Broughton House Garden